Land Tenure: Haiti's Elephant in the Room

Imagine if every man, woman and child now living in Washington, D.C., suddenly became homeless due to a natural disaster. Double that number and you have an idea of just how many people were left homeless in Haiti by the January 12 earthquake. Remember how D.C. was paralyzed this past winter by more than four feet of snow? Replace that snow with tons of rubble and you're in Port-au-Prince. On top of that, more than three-quarters of the Haitian population are desperately poor. And those who are in many instances only slightly better off, and own property, may not be able to prove it because the government itself is struggling to fully function and is not able to provide the most basic services. This scenario begins to paint a picture of the predicament Haitians are in, though in fact, it is quite a bit worse.

Land tenure in Haiti is the elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss, slowing the beginnings of the rebuilding process we are all so anxious to see. Enormous logistical complications hinder addressing this problem. It's taking a long time to haul off the mountains of rubble still clogging neighborhoods because there is little room for trucks to move, death certificates have yet to be issued for an untold number of the estimated 300,000 victims killed by the earthquake and an already inadequate legal system has ground to a halt.

When watching the "news" out of Haiti, in which sensation regularly trumps substance, it's important to consider the facts of land tenure to really understand what is going on. An effective land tenure legal system does not exist in the country. Property succession laws in Haiti are problematic because multiple heirs regularly share an undivided interest in the land. Haitians have traditionally transferred property interests informally because titling costs several thousand dollars and they consider government officials to be corrupt. Paper records verifying property ownership were incomplete before the quake; now many of the records are destroyed. The government building that handled land registries was flattened in the quake. And before the quake more than half of city residents rented. Now landlords who may have had titling issues themselves are unable to provide housing.

For the sake of comparison, consider how Hurricane Katrina exposed how the lack of land rights can affect a city's ability to recover from a natural disaster. Access to recovery and relief funding from the U.S. government was contingent on property owners obtaining access to clear title to their land. Yet among poor communities on the Mississippi Gulf coast, land often passed informally from generation to generation. Lack of trust in the court system and lack of funds to access that system meant that wills were not probated, multiple heirs often made property claims and squatting on property occurred. The Gulf Coast office of the Mississippi Justice Center coordinated an initiative in which pro bono lawyers were assigned to help low income citizens access good titles to their properties to get insurance and relief assistance.

There is a lack of land to build on in Haiti until more rubble is removed and the legal land policy issues are properly resolved. Haiti at a Crossroads, a June 22, 2010, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report noted:

Solutions need to be offered for moving displaced people out of the dozens of tent cities that have cropped up. There is land available, but land tenure issues must be resolved. The longer Haitians continue to live in makeshift camps, the harder it will be to reintegrate them into communities and take down the camps. Security challenges in the camps have been manageable because people have hope for a better future, but risks will increase if a sense of desperation sets in.

The lack of secure land tenure presents problems for donors committed to helping Haiti rebuild. The global economic climate obligates them to be prudent in how they invest. Donors are now forced to consider the feasibility of investing in permanent housing when land tenure is in question. The unfortunate, but understandable, result could be that funds are withheld until the issue is resolved by the Haitian government, which is ultimately responsible for the country's rebuilding process. Donors will want to be confident that titles to the newly rebuilt homes are held by the intended beneficiaries. If the titling issue is not resolved, property ownership and the related economic benefits may be taken from the rightful owners, who donors believe deserve the right to start anew.